Orkut is, one hopes, the last of the first generation of social networking services, and the first that is good enough to be criticized. It is named for its developer, Orkut Buyukkokten, who works for Google. Every page of Orkut-the-service bears the legend "in association with Google" at its bottom, the vagueness of which statement is also part of the reason Orkut has drawn so much attention.

When you are invited into Orkut (like the original beta phase of Friendster, Orkut is invitation-only), you see relatively little that doesn't look familiar. Your profile, which you are encouraged immediately to fill out, is a bit more modular than Friendster's, broken up into sections for personal interests and business ones, and there are menus with little key icons next to certain fields - allowing you some control over who sees what information about you, an encouraging sign. There is of course the invitation to invite all your friends, and then things start to get more interesting.

Under the Friends tab, Orkut features some more (round, appealing, Fisher Pricey) tabs, one of which is the Karma control. You can rate friends as Trustworthy, Cool, and Sexy, each at three levels (unmodified, very, and super). Once a user is rated by more than five people, their totals show up as icons underneath their name in their profile. These are already getting to be like long, bright, candylike garlands at the necklines of user profiles with only a few friends. Whether this, or a feature like it, will ever really mean anything, as opposed to being a neat toy to encourage inconsequential play and therefore stickiness, is called into question by the Fans feature, in which (on the same screen) you can designate which of your friends you are a Fan of. This information is public. Therefore, everyone ends up being a Fan of everyone, because to do otherwise might indicate some kind of social slight. Another sad case of social software creating social problems instead of solving them, but maybe the problems are what some people show up for.

In general, Orkut suffers from the same blinkered belief system that characterizes all the services which I would call "first generation." In Orkut, as in Friendster and Tribe.net and what seems like dozens of others, all friends are considered equal. In the real world, we keep some connections separate from others, don't share all of our interests with the whole world, and generally behave more sensibly. How is one supposed to be a member of Orkut's polyamory community (already one of its most popular) and still use the service for business connections? The paltry few security controls that do exist are not granular enough - I can show my AIM name to friends-of-friends or just friends, but what if I want to show it to friends of some friends but not others? The UI for this would get impossibly hairy, and yet it's necessary to the problem - a sad indicator that social software may have led computers into a domain that only humans will ever be good at. (A lot of computer types also seem to believe, based on the social walloping many of them got in early life, that nobody should ever be ostracized for any reason and different groups of friends should always be brought together. Sadly, not true.)

Other problems arise from decisions that the engineering tea-- well, that Orkut probably didn't think would be consequential. In the communities (yes, yes, I'm getting to them), you see pictures of and profile links to the first dozen or so of the community's members. "First," you ask? How is this determined? The ones that get shown are the ones with the highest friend counts. This not only invites gaming the system but leads to a rich-get-richer problem - only a problem if you care who has the most connections, but still. (It is also worth noting that, as of this writing, Orkut's terms of service are terribly draconian.) (As of this writing, though - one month after this WU was first posted - the friends panels are no longer sorted by number of friends.)

There are a few things about Orkut that make it not only fun but more useful than the competition. Case in point: crush matching, wherein you make a secret list of users you have a crush on and receive notification if any of them mark down a crush on you. This is a simple, powerful example of social software that solves a problem, it's been in other web apps before, and I have no idea why it wasn't in Friendster. Another is Orkut's communities, built-in linear discussion boards that anyone can create, have people join, et cetera. Being able to see what sorts of communities and discussions your friends (like, real world ones even!) are participating in is mind-expanding and definitely fun. (It would be even better if the service would do this simply by aggregating existing communities and discussion boards elsewhere on the web, but that's in the future if it's possible at all.)

The furor over Orkut - it became the net's 772nd most visited site in just four days according to Alexa - is due in part to the peculiar obsessions of the technorati that seem to populate it disproportionately so far. It may also just be the same conditions that led to the slower rise of Friendster, only this time, the pages load in less than half a damned hour. Anyway, it's still only been a week and a half and the server keeps falling over. Orkut lives in interesting times, as do we all.